How leaders find support through a crisis and avoid burnout

Leading through the COVID-19 crisis has pushed many of us in ways we could never have anticipated when we first welcomed 2020. 

From keeping frontline workers safe or coping with staffing challenges to transitioning to working remotely, leaders have had a lot to figure out during this global crisis all while keeping revenue on track, protecting citizens, sourcing supplies or even figuring out how to stay in business.

In preventing leadership burnout, we talked about how to differentiate characteristics of stress versus burnout and ways leaders can guard against burnout under more typical business circumstances.

A small table we shared in that last blog about leadership burnout might be helpful to you. It was from a recent article where James Sower outlined how to differentiate stress from burnout and it resonated for me:

 

Stress

  • Feel emotions more strongly
  • Feel less energy
  • Leads to being anxious or worried about a situation
  • Manifests as physical consequences, such as feeling tired or nauseated or having headaches
Burnout

  • Feel emotionless or disinterested
  • Feel less motivated, optimistic, or hopeful
  • Leads to feelings of sadness, hopelessness, or depression
  • Manifests as emotional consequences, such as experiencing anger, mood swings, or depression

 

But how do you slow down the burnout rate when you’re thrown into leading during a crisis especially one that doesn’t necessarily have an end in sight? 

The characteristics of burnout are the same during a crisis as they are under more typical conditions. During a crisis, however, everything is intensified and many leaders are at risk of overworking as they try to support their team members and take care of the company. 

We’re always at risk of missing the warning signs of burnout but it’s worse when everyone is in crisis and that feels like the new norm.

Here are five ways to avoid burnout during a crisis:

Find support for yourself: As the old saying goes, you can’t pour from an empty cup. You need to make sure that you have someone to turn to when things are hard. Reach out to someone you trust. You can vent to a good friend or family member, find help with emotional overload from a mental health professional or get help navigating issues and leadership challenges from a certified leadership coach. 

In a time of crisis, when everyone is facing challenges, you might want to pick more than one person and invite them to talk to you, too, or help them find someone to talk to. If you share with each other, just monitor to be sure it doesn’t become a “pity party” or just complaining and venting without thinking “and, so now what?” You may find it works well to talk to several people about forming a group to share concerns and frustrations and to help each other see solutions.

Don’t try to be a hero: Many leaders feel they need to keep going and save the day when there is a crisis, but you’re not going to be as effective if you’re worn out. Adequate sleep, regular exercise and healthy food all contribute to our overall health and ability to manage stress. Now, perhaps more than ever, self-care is essential if you want to be able to lead everyone for the long haul. (Bonus: Your team members will be more likely to take care of themselves if they see you make building resilience alongside productivity a priority.) 

Figure out what’s important – and what’s not: When things are dire, you need to be ruthless about priorities. Figure out what is essential, what you can defer and what you just can’t do right now. Make the best decisions you can given the information that you have right now (speed is more important than perfection when things are changing quickly). As leaders, we need to be able to adapt, adjust and figure out new strategies. That means letting go of, “Shoulda, woulda, coulda.” Make the decisionif it’s wrong, or something changes, consider your overall priority, make another decision, and keep going. The keys here are:

  1. Think of your goals or priorities as “hypotheses”if things change, the goal might have to change. That doesn’t mean you were wrong; it means things changed. 
  2. Don’t beat yourself up when it looks like something was wrong. Make a new decision given what you know now, and keep going.

Keep communicating: Let your team know what’s happening, including what you’re not going to do and what you don’t know yet. That last part might be scary when you think the boss needs to know the answer in order to be respectedbut the opposite is proving to be trueacknowledging what you don’t know and pledging to share the answer when you know it builds enormous trust and respect with your team. 

Also, now is the time to use a coach approach with your team, which will help keep information flowing from the frontline to senior staff. This is essential when you need to stay informed about the ground-level situation with your clients, stakeholders and supply chains.

People are as important as goals: During a crisis, it can be all too easy for leaders to put their whole focus on the business goals. While those are important, so is your teamand during this time of uncertainty, the people who will help you reach your goals need your support and empathy more than ever. In addition to checking in with your team, this is also a time to be flexible so your team can keep working without stressing about taking care of themselves and their families. 

I realize that might be part of the pressure that’s on you – balancing the demands from your boss and the need to be flexible and support the people reporting to you. If that’s the case, try thinking about the end goal your boss has and how flexibility with your staff might help you achieve it for the boss.  Or, use the tips above to work with a coach or trusted friends and mentors to explore new approaches, interesting ideas and other ways to solve the challenge while satisfying multiple needs.

Coach’s Questions:

How have your stresses changed during the pandemic crisis? What characteristics of burnout can you see starting to happen for you? What can you do to find support and avoid burnout? What would help your team?

 

The key benefits to solving problems, now

Do you feel like you’re constantly solving problems? 

For some folks, it’s as though they get one thing sorted and another pops up – or maybe the same kind of problem recurs. 

Bill Murray fans might call it a Groundhog Day situation, which sounds cuter than it feels, but the more technical term is being in a reactive cycle.

When someone is in a reactive cycle, it can feel like falling into the same hole week after week, month after month and year after year. 

Typically people: 

  • Push through and deal with the problem when it erupts again, and/or
  • Vow that next time will be different (and then they take care of the problem again and again).

It’s exhausting and unproductive if you’re just responding to crisis after crisis. 

Prevent problems before they happen

Our Admin officer, Tricia Hiebert, recommended I check out Dan Heath’s book, Upstream, in which he explores how to prevent problems before they happen. 

In the book, Dan explains: “We stay downstream, handling one problem after another, but we never make our way upstream to fix the systems that caused the problems. Cops chase robbers, doctors treat patients with chronic illnesses, and call-center reps address customer complaints… So why do our efforts skew so heavily toward reaction rather than prevention?”

In a recent podcast, Dan shared the parable that inspired the name of the book. It’s a public health parable that is commonly attributed to Irving Zola and it goes like this:

You and a friend are having a picnic beside a river, so you drape out your picnic blanket and just as you’re about to sit down and eat, you hear a cry from the river behind you. There’s a child struggling in the river apparently drowning, so you and your friend instinctively jump in, you fish out the kid, you bring him to shore. 

Then just as your adrenaline is starting to subside a little bit you hear another cry. There is another child in the river, so you jump back in the river, you grab the child and come back to shore. No sooner have you fished this child out then there are two more kids behind you struggling and drowning. So you begin this revolving door of rescue and it’s starting to get exhausting but the flow never ends. 

Then you notice your friend swimming to shore and stepping out as if to leave you alone. You say, “Hey, where are you going? I can’t do this alone! These kids need our help.” Your friend says, “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the river.”

It’s a quirky story to explain how many people run their lives and their business: They’re responding to crisis after crisis, but never fully realize that there is a solution to this exhausting cycle of stress and feeling overwhelmed. (Of course figuring out the root cause isn’t always as simple as walking upstream! And sometimes you need that two-pronged approach of saving the drowning children AND figuring out why there are always more kids in the river.)

The reality is that if you don’t start solving problems upstream, you might get it all done, but at what cost? Peace of mind? Wasted time? Maybe even losing a client? Some folks get so caught up in reacting that it damages their reputation: “They’re quick to help but it seems like that’s all they do, constantly solving problems but never preventing them.” Yikes!  

Why do we get stuck downstream?

In his book, Dan explains the three reasons leaders don’t move naturally into upstream problem-solving:

Problem blindness: If we don’t realize it’s a problem, we’re not going to solve it.

Pointing fingers: If we don’t take ownership over a problem, we can blame it on other people or other departments (and maybe even hope other people will fix it). If you have each party involved in a process take ownership and pretend they are solely responsible for the problems downstream, they will all identify various trouble spots.

We keep our heads down: If we just want to keep moving forward, we do so with tunnel vision. Instead of looking around to figure out why there’s an obstacle, we just endeavor to get past it as fast as we can.

I would add in a couple more:

Fatigue: Sometimes we know that the source of the problem is going to be difficult to solve and exhausting, so we put up with the smaller frustrations on an ongoing basis.

Politics: This ties in with Dan’s “keep our heads down” reason, but brings into it the notion that when others in the organization have an interest in the status quo, they don’t appreciate “trouble makers” or people pointing out problems. So sometimes, in the interests of our own career or our team’s success, we continue to be an excellent firefighter, squashing each problem as it occurs rather than risk pointing out the source.

Stop floundering downstream and look upstream

It’s hard when we’re in the midst of solving problems that are right in front of us and need our attention. But here are steps to help us shift perspective from dealing with the myriad small fires and figuring out how to prevent them at the source:

Don’t assume you know the solution: Dan gives many examples in his book of leaders in private and public sectors who were able to overcome big problems by moving to an upstream problem-solving mindset. But they don’t do it alone! Sometimes the frontline workers were the ones who were able to identify the source of the trouble. (Pro-tip: Here are the six characteristics of problem-solving leaders.)

Widen the focus: You may need to rally team members from across departments to effectively figure out how to prevent recurring issues. It’s possible that you’re blind to what’s actually causing the issues because it’s not happening within your area. Or, it could be that you’re so used to how things are that you can’t see the source or the solution – what you see are the symptoms of the problem – but someone with a slightly different vantage point can. Then you can get close to the problem and understand better how to fix it at the source. (Pro-tip: Working with a coach is a great way to see new perspectives and figure out new angles.)

Cultivate a culture where people can raise issues: Early in your career, did you ever see a solution to something but your boss didn’t want to hear it? It’s important that leaders encourage their team members to share feedback and bad news. Having early warning of an issue gives leaders time to fix the problem upstream before it’s really bad downstream. 

Fix problems instead of adapting to them: If something isn’t working, it’s human nature to adapt. The silly thing is that sometimes the problems that we keep stressing out over have simple solutions – but if we’re busy running from emergency to emergency those simple fixes might evade us. Instead of putting tape on the leaky pipe, call the plumber! For example, some companies spend a significant amount of money on staff to handle calls from clients. But what if there are a significant number of calls that could be preempted by providing answers so clients didn’t have to call for the same information over and over?

Stop rewarding busy work: Some folks aren’t motivated to find efficient solutions because “we’ve always done things this way” and they don’t feel it’s their place to look at solving problems upstream. It is just expected that everyone will do ten steps to get a result and then they may even brag about how busy they are because for some, busy still equates to importance.

What if you start encouraging people to share their ideas for streamlining and improving processes? It might be that to solve the source of the problem, leaders have to change systems and bureaucracy. 

Coach’s Questions:

When have you reacted to the same problem repeatedly? Can you think of where you are adapting instead of solving the problem? How can you shift from solving problems downstream to solving them upstream?

Build resilience alongside productivity as teams return to work

As many of us return to work, so much still seems strange and uncertain. How do we, as leaders, help our team members get things done?

Now is a time to choose to build resilience along with or perhaps even ahead of productivity. 

This isn’t an either-or situation. Teams can be resilient and productive, but a focus on resilience-building will help everyone to be able to come back from this whole COVID-19 situation stronger.

Folks have been dealing with a range of emotions through this crisis, from self-separating and learning to work remotely to managing grief and anxiety and working on the frontlines.

Difficulties and challenges can be draining, so building resilience will help your team members deal with changes and ongoing uncertainty about the COVID crisis as they heal emotionally and focus on their work goals.

What helps us to be more resilient?

According to psychologists, some of us innately have qualities that make us more resilient. These include:

  • Being optimistic
  • Having a positive attitude
  • Being able to regulate emotions
  • Seeing failure as an opportunity to improve

The good news is that skills that help to build resilience can be learned. As leaders, we can try to build resilience in ourselves and with our team members. 

Ways to build resilience include:

  • Breaking negative thought cycles: While limiting beliefs can hold you back, it’s possible to ignore negative self-talk and change the script to enabling beliefs. It can be very helpful to find a supportive friend, mentor or coach to help you find the courage to think and act differently. Similarly, you can use a coach approach to help your team members to ditch limiting beliefs during this difficult and trying time. Another technique to try is to imagine your best friend was dealing with this mistake, this defeat, this distress or depression, this feeling of being beaten. What would you say to a friend in this situation?  What would you say to honestly and genuinely help them see that they’re better than their belief? Now tell yourself.
  • Choosing to set healthy habits: All of us are better able to cope with stress and change when we’re well rested, eating healthy, exercising and finding meaningful social connections. Leading by example and encouraging your team to make physical and mental health a priority is particularly important during this time. Try just one habit. I’ve set a goal of going to bed earlier than I used to before. It’s easier than I thought since I seem to be so tired all the time nowadays. I don’t achieve success every night but when I do, it has had a noticeable improvement on the following day.
  • Focus on what we know and what we can control: It’s easy to get swept into worst-case scenarios during a crisis, especially when we don’t have all the answers. As a leader, part of your role right now is likely pushing back against catastrophizing. That means being open and honest when the answer to something is, “I don’t know right now,” or “I don’t know yet,” and following that with a “but.”  “But, we can do X,” or “But, we can try X,” or “But, we’re doing okay right now without knowing that yet.” It also means helping the team plan for the future when the future feels very uncertain – setting hypotheses to work toward rather than fixed goals. It could be having to acknowledge that, “given what we know now, our plan will be to do X” and then accepting that plan might need to shift or change, as circumstances change (for better or worse) and that’s okay.
  • Learning from mistakes: How we approach errors and setbacks can make a huge difference for how our team members handle things. Review our tips for how to find the emotional courage to make mistakes (and learn from them) so the folks you lead can roll with the punches and get back up after any bad knocks. Particularly now, in an uncertain time, we have to be willing to hypothesize about where we want to go, where we expect to be in the future and then roll with the punches as we move forward.  
  • Listen with an open mindset: If you follow our blog, you know that one of our common mantras at Padraig is, “listen to understand.” During this time when people are dealing with emotions around the pandemic and uncertainty in different ways, it’s helpful to be able to vent and express emotions without judgement to someone who listens with compassion. As leaders, we can listen mindfully and acknowledge difficult thoughts and feelings as part of the human experience. When people feel helpless, it can be helpful to consider the values that are important to your team and figure out ways to align current goals to those values rather than “reacting” to the reactions people are having.
  • Redirect scarcity thinking to abundance thinking: Some members of your team might default to scarcity thinking (which you’ll hear in comments like: there will never be enough, we have to hoard our skills and knowledge and fear the competition, if we don’t get this contract we’ll never make it, etc.) because they’re worried and feel anxious about all the unknowns. Model the seven ways to have an abundant mindset and try to lead your team members toward collaborating, trusting in their skills and abilities, thinking big and embracing risk.
  • Practice having an attitude of gratitude: When you as a leader express gratitude to your team members (individually and collectively), it helps your team feel hopeful and appreciated. When you privately express gratitude for all that you have, you become kinder, gentler and happier (not just with others, but with yourself, too). Being grateful can have a ripple effect, inspiring the same attitude in others so that it’s helpful for the well-being of everyone.
  • Pause when you need to: What’s that saying? You can’t pour from an empty cup. As leaders, we need to really make sure that we’re in the right headspace to make good decisions around planning and demonstrate effective leadership. You’re not mistaken – you are being asked to do a LOT. Make time for self-reflection and resting your mind because not every decision needs to be made instantly. Go for a walk without your phone or connect with a good friend to boost your mood, and then come back to work refreshed and ready to be proactive, not reactive.

Coach’s Questions:

What has been most unsettling for you and your team during the last few months? What can you do better to build your own resilience? How can you help your team members be resilient?

Simple methods to gain useful employee feedback

Last time we talked about accepting staff who bring forward problems. But, what if folks aren’t doing that?

As leaders, we’re used to giving feedback to our teams. But when was the last time you asked for employee feedback?

It might feel strange, particularly if you’ve worked for bosses who never sought your input about their own performance. But without feedback, it’s hard to gauge how you’re doing. 

Massively successful and powerful people have the confidence to check in with their teams to see how they’re doing. Leaders who ask for feedback to improve their own performance also build credibility when they offer feedback to their team members because they don’t dish it out if they can’t take it.

Bill Gates famously said in a TED talk about education: “We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.” 

Now, some of us might dread asking for employee feedback. It feels uncomfortable and it might even make you feel threatened. 

If we operate above feedback, we’ll never know if we could do things better or differently.

There are times when you lead an organization that you will benefit from having team members who don’t tell what you want to hear, but what you need to hear. The challenge is to make decisions based on the best information possible.

When you have a really good foundation of trust with your team, you can guide the feedback process so that it’s beneficial for everyone. 

How to encourage staff to speak up

First, outline what kind of feedback you want. You don’t want to leave things wide open if all you really want to know is how the last project fared. Setting parameters upfront will help everyone know what to share:
             -Is everything fair game?
             -Do you want to know how people view your leadership style?
             -Are you interested in just the company operations?
             -Do you want input about certain projects?

Explain that feedback doesn’t have to be positive. You can learn a lot from feedback that isn’t positive! However, feedback should be honest, authentic and kind. Remind people this isn’t an opportunity to vent frustrations, but rather to help improve things.

Be clear about their expectations. In other words, ensure your employees understand what happens after people give you their feedback. Will you have a follow-up meeting to discuss next steps or are you taking things under advisement but you will decide? Will everything change? Might nothing change? Who decides? When?

Consider what this process means to you. Ask yourself: At the end of this meeting, what do I want? Practice keeping a neutral tone and listening to understand (not to respond!). If people begin venting rather than being constructive, guide them to focus on solutions or end results they would like to see rather than just the challenges.

Invite groups to meet with you on neutral ground. Sometimes folks need someone else to go first before they’ll share their own thoughts freely.  Invite a small group to meet with you over coffee in the boardroom, or to go for lunch somewhere with a private meeting space, to give you their feedback.

Engage one to one and see what you learn. On the other hand, sometimes folks don’t want to say anything negative in front of others, especially to the boss.  And, since getting called to the boss’s office can be intimidating, try “management by walking around.” Go and actually talk with your front line workers at their place of work, asking them what works well, what doesn’t and what they would do differently, if they could. When you’re doing that, look the part of an engaged leader. If the frontline is dirty and loud, walk around in jeans and a casual shirt with sleeves rolled up. You want to meet your people where they’re at.

Be curious. Let employees speak freely and take notes. This is a fact-finding mission and you don’t have to resolve things right now – but you do want to encourage folks to be specific. Pro tip: Prepare yourself to handle any negative feedback with grace and professionalism by reading how good leaders handle criticism as a refresher.

Model the behavior. Speak up to your own boss when you have valuable feedback to share.

After you’ve asked folks to give you feedback, take time to review what has been shared and then make a point of looping back. Be purposeful about getting back to people to tell them what became of their suggestions and feedback. Even if the feedback couldn’t be implemented, loopback and explain why.  

Studies show employees will continue to give feedback when they know what happened last time, but if they don’t hear back, they will start to think feedback is a waste of time – and they’ll keep their good ideas to themselves.

Going forward, build feedback from your team into some sort of regular schedule. Being asked to provide feedback that is valued and heard is an important way to keep your team engaged. To be effective, it can be formal or informal but it has to be sought with some frequency.

If you do want feedback on your personal style, your leadership abilities and how you’re seen as a leader you might consider an anonymous, professional feedback tool like a 360 assessment (or, 180, if you’re polling your staff). We use the EQi 360 to give leaders incredible insight into how they are seen by others around them, and to help them adapt in situations where other styles are needed.

Coach’s Questions:

When was the last time you asked your team members for feedback? What areas of your work could benefit from some honest feedback right now? How can you start encouraging honest feedback from your team this week?

A coach approach to transitioning your team’s return to work

Using a coach approach with your team members can help them with communication, innovation, self-reliance, confidence, taking responsibility and even with their work relationships. 

Our clients and regular readers of our blog are familiar with what it means to use a coach approach to leadership, but you may not have thought about how you can use it to transition people back to work during these uncertain times.

The pressure is on for us to adapt and keep leading our teams while we all figure out what business is going to look like in the months ahead. Chances are that there are a range of reactions among your team members to returning to workfrom happy and excited to get back into the office to hesitant and worried about health, family and child care.

Many businesses are looking at continuing to have some or all team members work remotely, but when a temporary solution becomes a longer-term reality that is still a change to manage for everyone.

Adding coaching to your leadership toolkit works really well alongside mentoring (guiding by sharing your own experience), directing (telling folks what they need to do) and teaching (showing them how to do something).

Here are some ideas for using coaching to help your team members return to work:

Try having one-to-one conversations with each direct report privately: Reach out to each of your direct reports, asking open-ended questions about their expectations, their doubts, their concerns and their hopes so that you have a good sense of what’s on their minds – the good and the bad. When we start going back to the office, what would you like to see happen? What would you like to see change from before? What concerns you? 

Be a reliable source of information: Ask people what they want to know from you or from the company. When they ask about something that you’re not sure about or that you don’t have an answer for, be willing to say “I don’t know yet.” Offer to look into it and to get back to them.

Reassure your team about uncertainty: It’s very likely that your team members are going to ask you questions relating to things that you have been asking “higher-ups.” If the “higher-ups” aren’t responding or aren’t giving you the info you need, don’t blame them when you’re struggling to answer your team member’s question. Remember no matter how senior and powerful and decisive they may be, they’re human and they’re quite likely struggling with all this uncertainty as much as you are. Instead, respond with something like, “That’s a good question that I’ve also asked. We don’t have the answer yet, but I’m on it and will keep you updated as soon as I know.” 

Learn to be honest about (and comfortable with!) not having all the answers: Believe it, or not, survey after survey shows that employees greatly prefer hearing a boss say they don’t know and will try to find out than having a boss who avoids tough questions, makes up answers that may later change or avoids the conversation entirely. If your view of leadership includes “always having the answers,” it’s essential that you work on this – especially if you want to reassure your team during uncertain times. Now is the perfect time to practise some vulnerability with, “I don’t know, yet” and some empathy with, “but I hear your concern and I’m going to do my best to get answers for all of us.”

Encourage your direct reports to use a coach approach: If your direct reports also have people they manage, at the end of your coach approach conversation with your direct report, encourage them to have similar conversations with their direct reports (and so on and so on). At that time, point out to them some of the things you did in your conversation with them that they might do with their direct reports (or, provide them with a copy of this post and our coach approach to leadership post).

Broaden the discussion: In addition to one-to-one conversations with your direct reports, try holding a virtual town hall with them and their next level down (or further – all the way to an all-staff virtual meeting, depending how many people you can put on your video system). If you don’t have a webinar tool or virtual meeting tool, try Zoom – it has become the most common choice and offers a free version for meetings up to 40 minutes long and accommodates up to 100 participants. During that virtual town hall, have some remarks prepared about what you know and what you’re still working on. Pre-arrange to have someone else on the call take notes for you, in particular, to record things you commit to doing or questions you commit to answering. Ask people for input and for their questions. Remind them that you value the questions to help you make sure you’re addressing the issues and concerns you may not have thought of. Whenever anyone asks you a question, thank them for stepping up to speak (especially if it’s a large group).  

Be as responsive to the group as you are to your direct reports: As with the one-to-one meetings, ask people during a virtual town hall meeting what they want to know from you or from the company. When they ask and you’re not sure or you don’t have an answer, be willing to say “I don’t know yet.” Offer to look into it and to get back to them. When you get an answer (or even a bit of the answer) try to respond personally to the person who asked AND to the group. For example, email Mary in accounting to tell her the response and to thank her again for asking. Then include the answer in an all-staff email update or on the company intranet or post it to the company chat board. Mention the answer in your update at your next leadership team meeting and remind your direct reports to pass along the answer to everyone who reports to them.

Build regular outreach into your calendar: Remind yourself that the one-to-ones with your direct reports (and theirs, with their direct reports) need to be more often right now, not less. Schedule reminders so you don’t miss checking in with your team amid all the other work demands. Additionally, make the virtual town hall conversations a more frequent occurrence and not “one and done” – particularly if you still have folks working remotely some or all of the time.  

Keep the information flowing: Yes, this sounds like a LOT of communicating and perhaps over-communicating but in a time like this, when people are stressed and anxious about returning to work – and answers and the way forward are uncertain – you really can’t overcommunicate. Now, more than ever, your role as a leader is to help others be the best they can be – that means a big part of your day is going to be talking with people, finding out what they need, what they’re worried about and answering questions for them.  If you don’t already schedule that into your day, it now needs to be a priority.

Coach’s Questions

How do you feel about trying a coach approach to help your team members return to work? What benefits do you see from trying it? What’s the first thing you want to try?

What does leading your team look like after a crisis?

Leading through the COVID-19 crisis has been challenging for most of us. 

We’ve made it through the emergency phase and now we’re trying to adapt to this new reality and figure out how to keep business moving forward. It’s tricky (and a new kind of stressful) to reassure our team members in uncertain times.

Now, as we head into reopening businesses beyond essential services in the weeks and months ahead (depending on where you are located), the challenge is figuring out what leading your team will look like after the crisis. 

Many of our clients are feeling the pressure from trying to meet people’s expectations that they will have answers that they have no way of knowing right now. Change is hard for some people even in the best of times, so trying to lead change right now can be particularly fraught with tension.

One of our amazing coaches recently showed me an article about leadership in a permanent crisis that was in the Harvard Business Review. Interestingly, the article was from 2009 and the permanent crisis it was referring to was the economic collapse of 2008. But, while it’s 11 years old and was written in response to an economic crisis, this HBR article has many insights that really resonate during our current global pandemic.

Here are some ideas to help give your team direction even when you’re not sure about how to move forward:

Reset rather than settle for short-term fixes

In times of uncertainty, it’s human nature to want to cling to the familiar. Many leaders are tempted to just hunker down and solve problems with short-term fixes. It is possible to get through a crisis by drawing on what we’ve done before. Essentially, this is to make it through so we can then continue our old ways.

The challenge is that the skills that brought many of us to senior leadership roles – analytical problem solving, confident decision making, articulating clear and decisive direction – can get in the way of success – particularly in times of enormous uncertainty.  Those skills might be helpful in the early moments of a crisis but relying on them keeps us in “hunker down” mode. They help us survive the crisis, but they don’t help us reset. 

Why is that a potential problem? The HBR article uses a heart attack as a brilliant analogy. If you have a heart attack and are saved through the heroic measures of EMTs and cardiology experts, you have survived the initial emergency by the experts carefully doing what they’ve always been trained to do.  They get you through the initial crisis. However, if you breathe a sigh of relief and go back to your usual ways of eating, not exercising, etc., you will have won the battle but not the war. Unless you know how to prevent another heart attack by adapting your diet and exercise then the crisis is far from over. 

Now is the time for adaptive agile leadership. We can use the turbulence to build on and reset. This might include changing key rules of the game, reshaping parts of the organization and redefining the work people do. This isn’t a “reorg” for the sake of shaking things up because conservation is as much a part of a reset as change. Nevertheless, there will be losses. EMPATHY WILL BE ESSENTIAL because you need people’s help (but not their blind loyalty).

Embracing Conflict

Maintaining the right balance of urgency and criticality, without pushing people past their capacity, also requires depersonalizing conflict. This is a topic we talk about a lot at Padraig.

There has to be a lot of conflict around ideas and challenging each other’s thinking if we’re to change the culture, shift patterns, adapt our leadership thoughts and style. This requires depersonalizing conflict and building productive conflict in the workplace

The aim is to disagree on issues and challenge each other to broader thinking, different thinking while trusting each other to not make it personal, nor to take it personally. You have to understand the interests behind a perspective – the fears, aspirations and the loyalties that are being maintained and the factions that have formed. All of that requires knowing each other and using emotional intelligence.

A critical part of emotional intelligence is vulnerability, which helps to build trust. Building vulnerability-based trust is essential to depersonalize conflict. 

Find your sea legs

If you’ve ever been on board a ship, especially on stormy seas, you know that a regular gait won’t help you navigate on deck. You have to adapt your walk to the rise and fall of the waves if you don’t want to fall over. Similarly, in these uncertain times, we have to embrace disequilibrium and find a new way forward.

Difficult change generally requires sparking urgency in folks – but too much distress can trigger the fight, flight or freeze response – and we don’t want any of those. It’s a fine line of maintaining urgency and criticality, while not freaking people out. It can be helpful to remember and to remind your staff that while we’ll be operating outside our comfort zone, it’s not outside our capable zone.

Building on disequilibrium also means shifting from grand and detailed strategic plans to instead running numerous experiments of what might work going forward, given our new and uncertain future. 

An idea we like and that you might consider as you review your plan for going forward, is that a strategic plan should be less a collection of goals and more a collection of hypotheses. That’s an idea that first began circulating in earnest in 2017 after articles from Amy Edmondson and Paul Verdin, both professors of management. 

It might sound like a simple shift in wording but the idea brings a change of mindset.  When you’re struggling to map out the short- and medium-term when everything feels so uncertain, it somehow feels easier, and smarter, to draft some hypotheses you’re going to explore and work toward (and adjust, as needed) then to pronounce on goals you’re going to achieve. And yet, it still gives plenty of guidance to your staff, on where you’re trying to go and how you’re thinking of getting there.

Edmondson and Verdin call this approach “strategy as learning,” which contrasts sharply with the view of strategy as a stable, analytically rigorous plan for execution in the market. Strategy as learning is an executive activity characterized by ongoing cycles of testing and adjusting, fueled by data that can only be obtained through trial.

Perhaps what is most striking is what Edmondson and Verdin call the key indicator of a strategy-as-learning approach which is, how managers interpret early signs of gaps between results and plans. Are the gaps seen as evidence that people are underperforming and that we’re failing? Or as data that indicates some initial assumptions were flawed or have since become flawed (perhaps because of the arrival of a global pandemic, for example), triggering amendments and further refinement?

Build leadership in others

Building leadership is a critical task of leaders at all times, but never more so than in a crisis and following a crisis. An important strategy for adaptive leadership is to find and build strength throughout the organization, rather than keeping the hierarchical status quo to eventually breathe a sigh of relief that the crisis is over.  

Organizations that adapt in a crisis usually succeed not through one brilliant new initiative dreamed up at HQ, but rather through multiple smaller ideas, hypotheses, experiments and adaptations by people throughout the organization. That means mobilizing everyone, encouraging people to try new things with common sense and analysis, without fear of being criticized for trying.  

This means leaders have to let go of their own sense of obligation that they must be all and do all and get comfortable sharing the burden, being vulnerable, saying, “I don’t know but I’d appreciate your insight.” It means finding the emotional courage to make mistakes and learn from them.

As leaders, our primary goals become ensuring information is being shared, ideas are being discussed and new initiatives are attempted. The goal is for folks at all levels of the organization to feel supported, trusted and to take ownership, no matter where they are in the hierarchy, for creating value in the organization.

Take care of yourself first

We’ve all heard it on a flight: “put your own mask on first, before helping another person.” This is based on the rather obvious, but often forgotten idea, that if you aren’t healthy and functioning, or if you don’t survive the crisis, then you have no hope of helping others to survive.

Find a friend, mentor or coach with whom you can speak frankly, honestly and directly – to share your fears, explore ideas and sometimes to rant, rave or let yourself go. Ideally this isn’t someone in your organization who may someday end up facing you with an opposite view or a conflicting priority. The key in choosing someone for this particular role is that they care more about you than about the issues you’re raising. 

Find a retreat – somewhere you can be alone with your thoughts from time to time.  I don’t mean booking a week-long retreat at a spa ranch — though if you can manage that, then all the power to you. But, if you’re home during the pandemic, sharing space with a spouse, kids, parents, pets – maybe your retreat is the bathroom, maybe it’s the garage or perhaps a walk around the block. Visit your retreat space from time to time to ask yourself questions a coach might ask you, such as – “How am I feeling?” “Am I pushing myself too hard? Am I pushing others too hard?” “Am I pushing enough to keep us on a path forward?” “Am I being the leader I want to be through this?” “Am I building other leaders by being open, honest and vulnerable with my staff and peers?” etcetera.

Ask yourself if you’re being optimistic or pessimistic, are you being realistic or cynical? Try asking yourself, “If I were being optimistic and still realistic, without letting myself become pessimistic and cynical, what would I be thinking about this situation? What would I be doing about it?”

Coach’s Questions

We’ve thrown a lot of ideas and a lot of questions at you today. What resonates for you? What can you start doing to prepare yourself and your team for what the future months hold?

An attitude of gratitude for dealing with uncertainty

Feeling overwhelmed and gripped by fear, worry and uncertainty? Trying to navigate this new reality thanks to COVID-19? You’re not alone.

One of the most important things we can all do for our mental health is to develop an attitude of gratitude. If that sounds too simple when you’re struggling with working from home, working on the frontlines, being laid off and all the other challenges related to this quarantine life, please hear me out.

Finding things that we’re thankful for during a global pandemic might seem strange, but gratitude helps us to be resilient and find hope.

When we can do that, it helps us deal with stress and anxiety, and that in turn helps us with our mental health and even our physical health – science has proven that stress is a huge drain on our immune systems.

You may not be feeling gratitude right now, and that’s okay.

Start by practicing gratitude, by noticing the things you feel grateful for and building time for a gratitude meditation into your daily routine. As with all skills, the more we practice gratitude, the more it becomes a habit. Some folks find it helpful to think of three things they’re grateful for when they start and end the day.

(Pro tip: Try starting your day by thinking of three things you’re grateful for BEFORE you check the news on your phone. They can be small, simple things like enjoying a hot cup of tea or coffee or having a hot shower – or they could include bigger things like your relationships, work and unique skills or abilities.)

If you like making lists, you’ll probably find it very satisfying to start a gratitude list. Others might find it very helpful to keep a gratitude journal. (And if you’re never tried journaling, consider starting a journal now because our coaches will tell you it’s the one leadership habit you can’t live without!)

Here are five reasons why and how an attitude of gratitude can help us face uncertainty:

  • We can’t control what’s happening, but we can control how we respond to everything. At Padraig, that’s one of our mantras. I think this is best explained with shifting perspective from being STUCK at home to being SAFE at home. Words and context are powerful, so if we can reframe things more positively, it helps us cope. Instead of focusing on the worst news or how the worst leaders are handling things, think about the way researchers around the globe are working together to figure out this virus, how to best respond to it and to develop a vaccine. Consider all of the heroes and helpers in this time of crisis and what they’ve done to make a difference. As leaders, we can show confidence in the talent and skills of our team members to solve problems and tackle challenges together. We can share a word of thanks and a compliment. What can you control about your attitude right now? What could you do to help someone?
  • This is temporary. It’s harder to deal with situations that don’t have definitive end dates, but we will get through the pandemic. Things might be different going forward, but we’ll figure it out. If you watch the news or engage with social media, you’ll see stories celebrating the simple joys like people reconnecting with family and friends online or banging pots and pans to celebrate frontline workers. Some folks are enjoying slower starts to the day, a return to writing letters and many have adopted rescue dogs or cats. What are some positives you will remember from this time? You might want to add those to your gratitude journal so you can look back later and remember the good things. Take it one step further, what can you do to make some more good memories?
  • Sometimes it takes a crisis to see the best of humanity. Many arts organizations and musicians are sharing their creative gifts with the world for free, like this beautiful cover of Lean on Me by Canadian musicians. People are sharing love with family, neighbours and friends with “ding-dong-dash” deliveries of home-baked goodies and groceries. Some neighbourhoods have decorated their windows with hearts or hidden painted rocks so that children and families can enjoy scavenger hunt walks. What ways have you noticed people caring for each other and the community? What could you do, no matter how small, to make a difference?
  • It’s possible to train our brains. In times of anxiety or stress, our thoughts can run amok and usually tend to head toward the future. Take a deep breath and focus on the present. Re-label and reframe those negative feelings so you’re not just focusing on the worst-case scenarios. Ground yourself with the 3-3-3 rule of finding three things you see, three things you hear and three things you can touch. That’s a common technique to step back from anxiety. Then think of three things you are thankful for. Calming down that fight-or-flight response helps to reduce feelings of anxiety and make it easier for us to be positive and build an abundant mindset. Sometimes examining facts and focusing on what we do know (instead of what we don’t know) helps us to “de-catastrophize” our perception of a situation. How can I rewrite the script that’s playing in my head? What can I feel good about right now?
  •  Positivity is contagious. It’s hard to be positive if you’re surrounded by negativity. Reach out to your circle via social media, an email or a group call and ask everyone to share what they’re thankful for right now. It’s very uplifting to share reasons for gratitude. Connecting with other people is also a way to naturally boost all those feel-good hormones, so nurturing a digital community is important during this time of isolation. Think about not only group chats but watching online concerts, having online parties or streaming a funny comedy show or movie (laughter is the best medicine!). Because coworkers, friends and family members are probably feeling the strain from things, too, make an effort to offer supportive responses and contribute positive topics of conversation. What are those around me grateful for? What inspires me to gratitude or makes me feel grateful, too?

Even as we weather this crisis, there are still moments when we can find joy, comfort and even have fun. If we work on an attitude of gratitude, we can keep our spirits up (and the spirits of those we lead!) and have the mindset to Keep Calm and Carry On.

Coach’s Questions: 

What questions above really resonated for you?? What can you do to help yourself practice gratitude? What can you do to help others see the good?

 

What does being productive mean right now?

Most of us around the world are staying home right now, trying to minimize the coronavirus pandemic. Some of us are still working or have transitioned to working from home, some have been laid off and some are working on the frontlines.

And everywhere on social media and internet sites, we’re barraged with social media posts, articles and ads on ways to stay busy and use this time productively. 

Reactions to what I’ve heard called “productivity porn” vary, from:

Encouraged and inspired: Some people are up to the challenge, happy to pack their days full of things to do, challenges to undertake and new things to learn. Carpe diem!

Ambivalent: Others might celebrate what others are doing but are content or laugh at themselves for staying in pyjamas all day or binge-watching TV. Is it wine o’clock? What day is it? 

Pressured: Some folks are feeling defeated, like they’re failing at taking advantage of this time to do incredible things. What’s wrong with me that I can’t do more? Why am I wasting this time?

Exhausted: I want to be doing more but I just can’t bring myself to get to it. Where is everyone finding the energy for this stuff?

How you’re feeling right now could depend on many things, like whether you’re working from home or suddenly out of work, if you have young children or other loved ones to care for or if you’re in a stable and loving relationship with a partner, if you’re trying to get along with a household of people, or alone, if you’re staying home or working on the frontlines and whether your physical and mental health was strong before the lockdown.

In addition to our unique circumstances, our personality styles factor into how we manage through self isolation. We can’t fall into comparing ourselves to others or judging people who respond differently than we do – yet many of us do just that, don’t we?

Productivity isn’t the right measure for us right now

We are in the midst of a pandemic. Being productive is often really challenging for people when times are good, so it’s okay to not be okay during a global crisis.

Be wary of feeling that you have to be more productive, live up to your expectations of what productive used to look like or live up to anyone else’s ideas of what being productive is.

While productivity is a great measure for a machine or a business, is it the right measure for us as people – especially in a crisis? What does it mean to succeed or thrive right now? What if you’re #nailingit if you’re managing only the essentials?

Time is relative

I have heard from many clients that they thought they would have EXTRA time when they weren’t commuting, working regular 9 to 5 workdays or ferrying children to extracurricular activities. Some had ideas of all the new and additional things they would add to their days (especially those of us who love lists and promote the use of them in normal times) – and now we feel like we’ve LOST time.

Extra time is elusive when you’re dealing with uncertainty, adapting to working remotely (or the stress of working on the frontlines) and figuring out this new reality, which has changed everything from schooling kids to getting groceries. Nothing is normal right now.

It’s like when we’re driving to a new destination and the route there seems really long because we don’t know for sure where we’re going, so our senses are heightened and we’re a bit anxious. On the way home it feels very different – shorter – because we know what to expect. 

Similarly, our sense of how long we’ve been in suspended production is not accurate because we haven’t made it through. Just dealing with uncertainty and worry is tiring and distracting. Do you HAVE to take on bonus tasks and extra things if it’s a stress for you? Or is it okay to just pay attention to getting there safely, fed and rested?

Determine for yourself what to value

What if making the most of this time is taking care of ourselves and those we care about? We’ve talked before about how contemporary culture has a fixation on being busy. But being too busy is counterproductive, resulting in burnout and sacrificing personal life for corporate accomplishments.

Given that society has glorified this idea of overworking in recent years, particularly in North America (“How are you?” “Oh, busy!”), it’s not surprising that one response to having to quarantine and stay home has been to fill every second of time with achieving and overachieving. But resting quietly is valuable and necessary – everything has its season.

If your glass is already full, adding even one more drop will be too much. You want to fill it to where it’s comfortable for you. 

What will help you manage could be very different from every other person you care about and that’s okay. Learning to knit could be calming and distract you from worrying about COVID-19. Learning a language or being creative could be a wonderful way to occupy your time if you’re feeling lonely. Or, cuddling with your dog and sipping a cup of tea while you watch the sunrise could be just what you need.

Setting work goals during self isolation

Many of us are still working right now, remotely or as essential workers. We do still have to deliver things for others to be able to do their work. If you’re finding it a challenge to get through what you need to do, this could be helpful:

  • Write out your weekly goals first, then go through the list and remove everything that isn’t actually essential – everything that you think “oh, I should,” leaving only “yes, I must.”  Then break down the steps to help you achieve them.
  • Next, pull out another piece of paper and write down the things you’re thankful for in this pandemic. Pro tip: one of those things might become, “I gave myself permission to rest,” or “I accepted that resting my mind was good for my health.”
  • Finding an accountability partner can be very helpful, especially if you’re new to working from home or feeling overwhelmed. Talk to a friend, or trusted colleague – not the person you’re trying to be like, but someone you trust, someone who gets you and yet will be willing to do what you ask of them – and then ask them to check in on your progress.
  • Review our strategies for staying focused in spite of distractions – especially the Pomodoro Technique, which is simple and very effective (focus for 25 minutes, break for 5 and then repeat until your to-do list is done). Adapt the Pomodoro to your situation. For example, first of all – the 5-minute break has to be a break. Sip a tea and look out the window, put in some earphones and listen to soft music with your eyes closed, do a short meditation, get up and walk around the block.  If you are also caring for others, build in caring for them as part of a 25-minute block NOT as part of a 5-minute break.
  • The other ideas for staying focused will also help if you’re struggling to quiet your mind – or perhaps other humans if you’re working from home.

Changing our ideas of what being productive means right now will help us get through this pandemic – and maybe even improve our approach to work and personal life in years to come. 

Coach’s Questions

Have you felt stressed about being productive during the pandemic? Have your thoughts about productivity changed? What are you going to try this week? What are you doing to let go of this week?

Managing grief and anxiety in difficult times

I’m hearing a lot from folks who are really feeling the weight of social isolation with this new COVID-19 reality. 

Some were feeling like they were managing and suddenly feel like they’ve been blindsided by emotions. Others share that it’s been hard but now, nearly two months in, they’re barely coping. Then, of course, there are the frontline workers who are so busy and worried by what they’re seeing that they’re just doing what they can to keep going while protecting all of the rest of us.

Clients, members of our team here at Padraig, family, and friends many of the folks reaching out to me or responding when I reach out to check in with them nearly everyone is feeling out of sorts right now. 

Some folks aren’t sleeping well as they struggle with insomnia, nightmares or anxiety. Tension is running high in some households, with even the normally calm personalities feeling irritable and cranky. It might be hard to focus, remember things or accomplish much.

Add to that that some of us have been sick with COVID-19, know someone who has been sick with it or who works on the frontlines caring for those who are ill, and we can include anxiety and fear to those other feelings of malaise.

When I was “Zoom meeting” with our Padraig team across Canada this week, our Admin officer, Tricia Hiebert, shared that she’d read a great article in the Harvard Business Review that this discomfort that we’re all feeling is grief

That realization resonated for us. Collectively, we’re grieving the loss of how things were before COVID-19. Many of us, and you, have lost work and income and some have even lost loved ones or we’re worrying that we will and that anxiety is palpable.

No matter what your experience is right now, we are all going through losses and fears while also trying to maintain some semblance of normalcy. It’s stressful, it’s unusual, it’s challenging and it’s sad. And, you might feel like you’re not doing as well as others.

Remember the five stages of grief? Think about them now in terms of what you’ve experienced during this pandemic:

Denial (We’ll be fine – some say COVID-19 isn’t worse than a bad flu.)

Anger (I can’t believe this is happening – why didn’t anyone plan for this?)

Bargaining (We can stay home for two weeks and then resume normal life.)

Depression (After weeks of this health stats are still bleak & unemployment rates are brutal.)

Acceptance (What can we do to work through this?)

This is a script change that none of us anticipated and the fallout touches on all aspects of our lives. We have an expression when it comes to feelings: Name it to tame it. Being able to name what we’re feeling is a relief and when you can identify it, you can talk about it and release some of it. Only then can most of us move through the thoughts to action.

Here are some ideas for managing grief and anxiety during this time of uncertainty:

Find ways to connect with other people: As humans, we’re built for connection and we need to feel valued. Social isolation has cut us off from our normal connections and on top of that, now we’re stressed, perhaps lonely and worrying. Reach out to friends and loved ones by phone, on social media, or by video teleconference. Don’t feel guilty if you’re home with family and still feeling lonely! You might just need a bigger support network right now, so get in contact with the other people you care about and engage with them online. Be real and honest about how you’re feeling and lean on those people around you to get through this. Name your feelings.

Stick to a routine: When everything seems uncertain, a new routine of what we can control can be very helpful and comforting. Try to go to bed at the same time each night and rise at the same time each morning,  regular sleep, add in some exercise, drink lots of water and eat healthy at regular intervals. Remember routines can start small. If “get some exercise” means 10 jumping jacks when you get out of bed, that’s 10 more than you were getting before and you should be proud of that.

Manage information: Some of us are watching the news headlines compulsively, which can add to our feelings of grief and anxiety even if we don’t think it is. Tune in to the news at a certain time of day for a set amount of time and then get on with the rest of your day. This way you can be informed without being overwhelmed with statistics and reports. Again, this is habitual only in this case, it’s breaking a habit. When you realize you’re checking the news app, or you’re reading more frustrating social media updates about this politician, or that company gently remind yourself to do something else. Don’t criticize yourself for being “lazy,” don’t criticize yourself for breaking your “rule” of no longer reading this stuff during the day, just “notice” that you’re doing it and switch to something else. It’s helpful to decide now, what you will switch to when that happens so you’re ready. Maybe you switch to working on project X, or you switch to clearing up work emails, or whatever works for you. Tell yourself, in the moment, you have to switch for 3 minutes. In most cases, that will be enough to remove you from the news or the social media, or whatever it was that was distracting you.

Try to be flexible: This is hard for everyone. Many of us are having to revisit what it means to be a professional and adjusting our ideas about productivity in the workplace. Working with kids and teens at home and trying to keep them schooling remotely? Enough said. There will be really good days and there will be some really hard days. Things will not be perfect. You will not accomplish everything you feel is needed of you. That is okay.

Work through feelings of anxiety: The way we think about anxiety can have a huge impact. Anxiety itself is not a bad thing. It is a very important human response that helps us to avoid danger and tells us what is important. Sure, it feels uncomfortable when we’re in a state of alarm, but it’s a normal human response to a threat. The first thing to do when you feel panicked is to acknowledge it’s happening and that it’s okay. Then breathe. Deep breathing calms our nervous system. Racing thoughts? Try writing them down because journaling helps us to process our emotions and put them in perspective while slowing us down.

Turn to mental health professionals: Many mental health providers are providing free resources and even online consultations (I found Stronger Minds by BEACON on Facebook a free digital program created by clinical psychologists that is free to all Canadians and sponsored by Manulife and Green Shield Canada). A number of provincial governments have contracted with mental health organizations to provide free online resources. You can Google for local references. Reach out if you are really struggling with feelings of depression, anxiety and stress because looking after our mental health is as important as, or more than, taking care of our physical well being.

Focus on what we can control: There is a lot of uncertainty right now, and feelings of fear and anxiety intensify when we’re facing the unknown. Try to sidestep falling into the “what ifs” (which usually get us thinking about all the worst possible outcomes) by focusing on what you can do in the moment. We don’t know how long this will last, but we do know that washing our hands and practicing social distancing is a good way to protect ourselves. Taking a walk in fresh air can clear the head. Turning off the video on a Zoom meeting is helpful when you just don’t feel like trying to be “on” for everyone.

Boost those feel-good hormones naturally: Our bodies produce hormones that elevate our mood (endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin and dopamine). Know what helps get those feel-good hormones flowing? A bit of regular exercise, sunlight, fresh air, connecting with other people, laughter, singing or playing or listening to music and certain foods (spicy dishes, foods high in tryptophan and probiotics to name a few!). If you’re feeling low, it’s time to walk around the block, turn on the stereo (or iTunes or Spotify on your phone!) and have an impromptu dance party, sing along to your favourite tunes or swap funny stories with some friends. 

Coach’s Questions

 Have you noticed your mood changing over the last few weeks? What’s been a struggle for you and can you name it? What ideas above resonate for you? How will you remind yourself, in the moment, to use them?

 

Next up: What does being productive mean right now?

 

How introverts and extroverts can manage through social isolation

You may have heard the joke that staying home sheltering in place is what introverts have been training for their whole lives. 

Or the meme asking introverts to please check on extroverted friends because they are not okay with social distancing.

While it’s true that facing social isolation is arguably harder on extroverted personalities in some ways, it’s very challenging for all of us to be home because of COVID-19 and not by choice.

We’re several weeks into this COVID pandemic and it’s wearing on most people, even the ones who are safe at home and not worried about their incomes. For those struggling with layoffs or professions that have them on the frontlines, it’s a particularly scary time.

It’s really shades of introvert and extrovert

At Padraig, we do a lot of work with leaders and their teams on understanding personality differences. There are different assessment tools available our coaches use one called Everything DiSC to help folks understand themselves and others better. 

If you’re familiar with the DiSC personality styles or a regular reader of the blog, then you’ll know that the Dominant “D” and Influential “i” tend to be more extroverted and the Steady “S” and Conscientious “C” tend to be more introverted. 

Some people think introverts like to be alone and extroverts like to be around a lot of people, but it’s a little more complicated than that. For example, introverts can be very outgoing and sociable but tend to like to recharge with some alone time. Extroverts can accomplish things solo but like to recharge with others. And there is no “right” or “best” style, by the way, because all of us have strengths and challenges being able to work with different personalities is where we find true success.

Typically introverts:

  • Draw energy from within, spending time alone
  • Seldom like to be the centre of attention
  • Like to think before they speak, which to others may make them appear reserved or quiet
  • Don’t need a huge social network

While extroverts usually: 

  • Draw energy from other people and enjoy being around others
  • Enjoy participating actively in things and being the centre of attention
  • Are usually seen as outgoing and enthusiastic
  • Enjoy cultivating a large social network

If you’ve ever done a personality assessment like DiSC or perhaps Myers Briggs, then you know that personality is not as simple as introvert or extrovert because it’s a scale where some will score very high, very low or in the middle. Our personality styles affect how we approach work-life balance, work, and personal relationships.

So when it comes to social isolation, we need to remember that while there may be some truths to introverted personality types adapting to being socially isolated more readily than their extroverted counterparts, we’re all learning how to manage this new normal. 

As leaders, understanding personality styles can help us anticipate what works not just for ourselves, but for some team members and what will help other folks manage better. 

What helps introverts manage social isolation

I’ve spoken with clients, heard from blog readers and touched base with my Padraig team members. Introverts may not mind some aspects of self-isolation, but here are some helpful strategies:

  • Create and adapt to new routines: For many people who are more introverted, routine is a great comfort. Thanks to COVID-19, most people’s normal schedules have been disrupted. And it’s not just the work routines that have been derailed! Introverts who are used to picking up a coffee at their favourite bistro in the morning or going to see a movie every week are missing their habitual practices just as much as extroverts. Building new routines is very helpful while physically distancing. If there are things that you can keep on schedule with working from home (from sleep schedules to the timing of regular team meetings), it can really help some personalities feel more settled.
  • Reach out when and how you need to: That’s right, connect with people! Nearly every one of the more introverted personalities I spoke to said that everyone assumes they are happy and relieved (rejoicing even!) to be home all the time, but that while they do like solitary time it’s different when they’re feeling confined to barracks. They’re also missing the freedom to go out to eat, visit public places and travel. One introvert shared that he has found it really hard to deal with stress since his gym closed and his band can’t meet: “I like having alone time, but I enjoyed these activities and now they’re off-limits. It’s really hard for me to lose them.” He’s started running and says he now appreciates being invited to participate in an online meeting or streamed concert or movie. An introverted account manager I know said, “I’m actually gaming online or going on social media to interact with people and look at photos of friends who live in other places. It’s great because I can enjoy a bit of a diversion, but it’s still interacting on my terms.”
  • Deal with non-essential chatter: It’s not that more introverted folks don’t like people, because most value close one-to-one relationships and are very thoughtful. What’s hard is feeling inundated by small talk or too much casual conversation, which is draining for introverts. “I don’t like meaningless texts,” one self-described introvert shared. “We have a text chat for our team and I’m not kidding, the other day there were 183 new texts and only five were actually work-related. I can’t skip them because I could miss something important. It killed me.” The simple fix is to ask for or offer a way for introverts to opt-out of the contact that the more extroverted need and want. Maybe suggest a chat stream or a Slack channel for socializing (“The Break Room” or “The Watercooler”) and one for each project?

What helps extroverts manage with social isolation:

It’s not hard to see why folks who feel energized when they’re with other people and out there interacting with clients and colleagues all the time are struggling with social isolation. Here are some ideas to help the more extroverted personalities:

  • Figure out remote ways of connecting with people: The more extroverted you are, the harder it is to be socially isolated. Feeling lonely can increase your stress, interfere with your sleep and exacerbate feelings of anxiety or depression. You might also be feeling shame, or guilt, if you’re at home with spouse and kids but still feeling lonely or disconnected. I recently spoke with a client who is exceptionally capable, very positive, creative, and intelligent who shared that he’s been in despair for about three weeks now as he tries to figure out what to do to cope with social isolation. First, it’s very helpful to name what you’re feeling, to know you’re not alone and to reach out to someone who can be a good listener. Next, strategize and find ways to fill that need for human interaction. This is where having video conference calls for work (seeing people, not just chatting with them), online coffee breaks with friends or coworkers, virtual coffee dates and checking in with loved ones and friends is essential. Participating in Instagram streamed events with your fave celebrities (many musicians and authors are streaming interactive concerts and readings or Q&As) and going for walks where you can pass people at a safe distance may also help to fill your bucket.
  • Get creative and stay active: The more extroverted folks I’ve heard from miss the busy-ness of life before COVID-19. They’re missing the events, lectures, meetings, parties, and all the opportunities to network and mingle. Living within four walls and rarely venturing out unless it’s for a careful shopping trip alone is not just boring, but depressing. Find some inspiration and do something that allows you to interact with others at a distance. We’ve seen the balcony concerts and serenades in Italy first and now many other places, online dance parties, and surprising friends with drop and dash goodies left on their doorsteps. I’ve heard of friends playing a game of hide-and-seek in the car where one vehicle hides and texts clues to the others. Go for walks and exercise to keep all those feel-good endorphins and dopamine flooding your system.
  • Ask for space if you need to: Just as introverts do need some human connection, extroverts sometimes need some downtime and quiet. One of our Padraig team members is on the extreme end of the extrovert scale, but working from home while also schooling her children has been a strain. Her partner, an introvert, was genuinely shocked when she dissolved in tears because she wanted him to take over for a few hours at least one day a week. “He genuinely thought that I’d be in my element, loving having everyone home. And while that’s true, it’s also stressful to lose my routine and ability to work uninterrupted when I need to.” 

No matter where we fall in the continuum of introversion or extroversion, it’s important for us to learn to live and work remotely with different personalities in these uncertain times. Everyone is adapting to new situations and how we’re feeling can change day-to-day.  That last phrase is an important one our feelings can, and do, change from day-to-day. If you’re having a bad day, set an intention to, later in the day, or tomorrow, try one of your new goals above.

When we’re aware of what we and others find comforting or challenging, we can be more mindful about feelings and what we all need for our physical and mental health. It helps to communicate clearly when we’re feeling anxious or stressed, and to reach out when we need support.

Don’t assume people know how you’re feeling or that you know how those around you are doing; share your real situation with those you trust and check in with people. It’s especially important to listen to understand right now to support one another and strengthen relationships.

Coach’s Questions: 

Where do you fall on the introvert or extrovert scale? Who on your team is more an introvert or extrovert? What can you do to manage social isolation on those difficult days? What could you do differently or better to help those on your team?

Next up: I’ll explore more about how the pandemic is affecting our mental health and then how to have an attitude of gratitude in social isolation.